Don’t Deny Everything — Affirm

Affirm everything, or at least, as much as possible. Don’t affirm that triangles have four corners or that two and two makes five, but try to find ways to affirm as many other things as it’s reasonable to affirm.

To deny everything that it’s possible to deny is the way of the lazy person. “Prove it to me. I won’t believe it until you force me to believe it. By the most airtight, unambiguous argumentation, if you please, and probably not even then. I’ll find a way to weasel out. But try anyways, because otherwise I definitely won’t believe it!” Yes, we might seem to win more arguments by being closed and uninterested, but to what end?

The people who try to deny others’ arguments in that way never allow their own arguments to taste the same standards. If their own views are subjected to the same standards, they roll their eyes at the questioner and laugh scornfully. “Well, obviously you have to believe something. Otherwise you could never get on with your life. Now you’re just being ridiculous!”

In other words, the people who are in the mode of denial will continue to believe whatever they want to believe (not because they have any great proofs for their beliefs, but because this set of beliefs is just what they think is the best way for getting along in the world, and that because it’s probably the only way they’ve ever really bothered to try). There is no room for growth, for learning, or for understanding, or at least not without massive pressure being exerted from outside. It doesn’t even matter how well-informed these people are, whether they spend their days consuming news stories or books or peer-reviewed articles. As long as they are focused on denial, on not believing anything but what they have chosen to believe, then no amount of reading or studying will broaden their mind.

What then are the alternatives? Denying everything seems obviously silly, but so does affirming everything, so shouldn’t we seek a middle way? Shouldn’t we try to affirm the things that make sense to affirm and deny everything else?

Except, that’s what we already think we’re doing. By pseudo-intellectually denying everything and then agreeing with whatever we want to think, we already convince ourselves we’re denying what it doesn’t make sense to believe, and affirming what is reasonable. A summons to take the middle path will be enthusiastically embraced, and then will lead to negligible benefit.

The best way to trick our biases that keep us from learning, and to make sure that we are not applying a double standard to our beliefs and other potential beliefs, is to seek to affirm everything. We will try to think up or search out the best arguments for the things we didn’t previously believe, and once they’re found we’ll make sure to try and give them the strongest articulation we can think of rather than allowing them to be strawmanned and nitpicked, and even in the time before we have a chance to search out such arguments we’ll say only that we’re favourably disposed toward that conclusion, attracted by many facets of it, but unwilling to argue it for now since we feel not yet ready.

Without this shift in perspective, we will learn and grow so slowly that by the end of our life we’ll have had a chance to make very little progress at all, and in old age we may be even more inflexible on account of all our years habituating ourselves to reject whatever isn’t familiar and comfortable.

With the shift in perspective, however, we can trick ourselves into learning at a fantastic rate.

Now, some who have had the experience of debating a question with me in the past will be itching to call me a liar. I can hear it now. Perhaps it would be something like, “Remember, John, when I said that capitalism is the only good system and you disagreed? I was making a positive argument, and you were disagreeing.” This is one out of many examples I could have come up with, but let’s stick with it for a moment, because I’ve had this conversation with a few friends over the past several years. If I’m disagreeing with someone who says that capitalism is the only good system, the point is that I’m disagreeing because of the “only.” I’m trying to stress that while capitalism is good and useful up to a certain point, this apparently positive assertion we’ve heard ends up rejecting a great many interesting and promising alternatives from which we might learn a great deal as well if we could be open to it. In the course of the conversation, the debating won’t be driven by me demanding that the capitalist prove capitalism is good, because I already accept that; much more, it will be driven by the capitalist asking me to prove that capitalism isn’t the only good thing. I will be the person arguing for positive things, and the other person seeking to deny them.

Be the person searching for the best arguments, and do it for your own benefit, even though it’s easier to win debates by being the denier; don’t be the person who imperiously demands that someone else must produce the very best arguments for your enjoyment or else must concede defeat. Don’t be that person.

Try to affirm everything. Deny something only with the greatest reluctance, after great effort to keep it, and even then remain always hopeful that someone else will provide you with a way to get it back after it’s been lost.

This is a marvellously rich world to live in, full of all the things that could conceivably be believed. It’s the opposite of Ockham’s razor, in a way. It’s an exciting and collaborative way of thinking, rather than competitive and fearful and angry.

It’s the way to be. Give it a try.

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